Until He Wasn’t (MadLab – Columbus, OH)

whatever_21_orig

What’s it about?

Until He Wasn’t concerns four strangers connected by one man: Colin Bayley. Colin is attentive, sexy, sensitive – the perfect guy to each of his former lovers commiserating about their time with him; that is, until he wasn’t. As the evening progresses, each member of the group divulges just how deep their connection to each other goes – all because of one man.

Photo: Michelle DiCeglio – (left to right) Laura Spires (Raya), Tenille (Jenn Feather Youngblood), Will Macke (Gavin), and Kasey Meininger (Natalie)

Is it worth seeing?

When I first entered the MadLab Theatre to see how the seating had been completely rearranged to present this show in the round, I knew Until He Wasn’t was going to be special. I didn’t plan on how involving the piece would ultimately be, as the writing by Patrick McLaughlin can be interpreted as either dramatic or cynically comical all depending on the way the audience chooses to interpret it; there were many moments were certain groups would laugh at a particular moment whereas other parts of the audience were solemnly quiet. The set pieces are minimal and never in danger of blocking any of the action, and director Audrey Rush takes care to spread the action out so there doesn’t appear to be a bad vantage point.

Photo: Michelle DiCeglio – (left to right) Laura Spires (Raya), Rob Philpott (Colin), and Kasey Meininger (Natalie)

This is one hell of a cast working through some rough material, and it’s quickly apparent that this is not their first time at the rodeo. Laura Spires could be whiny as Raya, the wife who was married to Colin for years, but she isn’t; Ms. Spires isn’t keen on hearing of his infidelities, and so she comes off as naturally defensive of what she believes were those special years before the trouble started. Kasey Meininger makes Natalie, Colin’s lover while still married to Raya, quite aggressive, exhibiting a natural inclination towards physicality that fits the role and the actor playing it; a semi-dream sequence in the second act requires Ms. Meininger to fling herself around in a way that would send most of us to the chiropractor, but she manages it all in stride.

Jenn Feather Youngblood as Tenille at first glance might seem like the stereotypical “sexless, quirky best friend of the lead who never gets the guy,” but she is so much more than that. At times able to connect with a beat that jolts the audience with laughter and at other times uncomfortably vulnerable, Ms. Youngblood is able to turn the perceived stereotype on its head, showing more than anything that we all seek love and acceptance and don’t necessarily question it when it comes in an unbelievably attractive package. Will Macke’s Gavin definitely stands out in the otherwise female group, his swagger and sexual innuendos definitely meant to shock and disarm; still, Mr. Macke has a way of letting the audience in to look past his brusque facade, most shockingly during an intense sequence in the second act.

Photo: Michelle DiCeglio – (left to right) Laura Spires (Raya) and Rob Philpott (Colin)

It takes a special actor to be able to generate chemistry with four very different people in the same play, and Rob Philpott is just such a special talent. As Colin, Mr. Philpott is disarmingly suave and appealing, but he performs at a much higher level than one might expect from what seems like a typical pretty-boy role. His Colin says the right things at the right time, and the heat he generates with each of his on-stage lovers (no matter the gender) is electric and dangerous. Without a special person for each of the four main characters to pine for, Until He Wasn’t wouldn’t work; with Mr. Philpott as Colin, it works so well that I bet it could make members of the audience wonder if they might also be taken in under his spell if they encountered him in the same circumstances as did Raya, Natalie, Tenille, and Gavin.

Until He Wasn’t is one of those two-act plays where the first act ends with a big revelation, one that I didn’t see coming. This big moment lays the groundwork for the second act, as thrilling and tense as anything I’ve seen in years. At the end of this two and a half hour journey, I was exhausted yet exhilarated by the ride. Highly recommended!

My rating: *** 3/4 out of ****

Where can I see it?

Until He Wasn’t continues through to October 22nd in the MadLab Theatre located at 227 North 3rd Street, and more information can be found at http://madlab.net/until-he-wasnt.html

Advertisements

The House of Blue Leaves (State of the Arts Productions – Columbus, OH)

Comedy is tough enough, but when you make it dark and cynical it’s even more challenging. The House of Blue Leaves by John Guare is one of those dark and cynical comedies, first presented in 1966 and having had two runs on Broadway in 1986 and 2011. It is full of characters that you would not want to spend time with as they are pretty obnoxious and unlikeable, and you’re sure to leave afterwards glad that your life is better than theirs. It’s a demanding piece for State of the Arts Productions to tackle and is only running this weekend at the Columbus Dance Theatre downtown.

The action takes place in the Queens apartment of Artie and Bananas Shaunessy on October 4th, 1965, the date that Pope Paul VI is visiting New York. Artie works at the zoo but is an aspiring songwriter; Bananas is heavily medicated and suffering from depression; Ronnie is their GI son who has gone AWOL and has plans to blow up the Pope; and Bunny Flingus is the loudmouth neighbor with which Artie is having an open affair. Into their lives enter friends from their past as well as a group of rambunctious nuns as the improbabilities of the day play out. The house of the title refers to the asylum to which Artie threatens to send Bananas.

It’s oddly prescient that The House of Blue Leaves arrives in Columbus the same week that the Pope is visiting the U.S., and the coincidence isn’t lost on Gwen Edwards, whose son Quentin was the Artistic Director of State of the Arts Productions (SoArtsPro) and secured the rights to the play before his untimely passing more than a year ago. Playbill even reported on the fact that SoArtsPro is the only theatre company in the country performing this work during the Pope’s visit, and that article can be found here: http://www.playbill.com/news/article/a-pope-a-play-and-the-unexpected-legacy-behind-an-upcoming-house-of-blue-leaves-361689

 

Photo: Gwen Edwards – Karen Benedict (Bananas), Edwyn Williams (Artie), and Jim Coe (Billy)
 
It’s refreshing to see theatre that feels a little dangerous, as if anything could happen at any moment. Many of the performers have limited stage experience, but in an odd way it kind of works for this material as everyone performs at pretty much the same level. The cast works together to tell this story the best way they can, and the result is an admirable effort. Karen Benedict seems so frail and helpless as Bananas Shaunessy that she absconds with the audience’s affection, making one of the final plot twists feel particularly caustic in a work that was already pushing the boundaries of acceptable comedy. Not having seen any other production, I don’t know if the “shocked into silence” reaction the audience had at the denouement is what was intended. It makes an impact, make no mistake.

Director Sehri Wickliffe’s direction has its share of moments that come off as awkward and ill-timed (a scene involving some scuffling between Nick Evans and John Montgomery is badly choreographed), but in a strange way it comes off as more genuine because of it; the odd pauses and pacing only add to a general uneasiness that helps the comedy rather than inhibits it (most of the time at least).

 

Photo: Chuck Pennington III
 
The set is a collaborative effort between many people, and there’s something charming about the myriad of pieces laid out to represent the cold, downtrodden Queens apartment. The stage at Columbus Dance Theatre allows for a lot of depth and it is used to maximum effect, an art often lost with some of the larger theatre companies. It’s difficult to nail down the period from the set alone, but it definitely belongs to a time many decades ago.

The House of Blue Leaves is a daring work for a community theatre as it deals with death, mental illness, infidelity, religion, and murder, and yet it is funny as well. I’m glad that I saw what SoArtsPro did with the material, and, rough as it is, I can honestly say that it held my interest throughout. Not all of the comedic moments landed, but enough did that I would definitely consider this glass half full.

**/ out of ****

The House of Blue Leaves continues through to September 27th at Columbus Dance Theatre located at 592 East Main Street, and more information can be found at http://www.soartspro.com